Sunday, May 22, 2011

Maricopa County Sheriff's Office mishandled sex cases, report says

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office failed to adequately investigate more than 400 sex-crime cases, including dozens in El Mirage, over a two-year period because of poor oversight and former Chief Deputy David Hendershott's desire to protect a key investigator from bad publicity, according to documents pertaining to a recent internal investigation released by the Sheriff's Office.

The errors led to interminable delays for victims of serious crimes who waited years for the attackers to be brought to justice, if they were ever caught.

More than 50 El Mirage sex-crime cases, most involving young children reportedly victimized by friends or family, went uninvestigated after police took an initial report. The lack of oversight was so widespread in El Mirage that it affected other cases: roughly 15 death investigations, some of them homicides with workable leads, were never presented to prosecutors, and dozens of robberies and auto-theft cases never led to arrests.

Concern about the handling of the cases dates back several years. However, a recently concluded investigation by Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu revealed that an internal probe to get to the root of the problem was blocked by Hendershott two years ago because it would have reflected poorly on an investigator he considered crucial to a separate case.

Hendershott, according to investigators, killed the internal probe to protect Sgt. Kim Seagraves, because she was potentially needed to testify in a corruption case he was pushing.

The Pinal County investigation not only found fault in the El Mirage case, but it illustrated a larger problem with agency investigations.

"It wasn't just El Mirage PD cases," Deputy Chief Scott Freeman told Pinal County investigators. "As they started to look into that, they found that there were a lot of cases that hadn't been worked properly, hundreds of cases."

The Sheriff's Office would not comment on the mishandled investigations, which are the subject of an ongoing internal probe that began after Hendershott was placed on administrative leave last fall.

Problems with El Mirage cases emerged in late 2007 after Phoenix police veterans were hired to rebuild the El Mirage Police Department. A sheriff's official provided the new leaders with copies of criminal cases. They were shocked to find investigations, particularly those involving sex crimes, often ended after an initial report. Most had been forwarded to a "Special Victims Unit" at the Sheriff's Office, but there was no evidence of any follow-up.

Victims included a 15-year-old girl who said she was raped by two men outside an El Mirage shopping center and a 9-year-old who told a school counselor her grandmother's boyfriend often came into her bedroom at night, performing sex acts as she tried to sleep.

The 15-year-old had run into a store, where she told the shop owner closing for the night that she had been raped. Police officers stood watch over the crime scene as the teen was taken away by ambulance to be treated for injuries. Reports on the incident ended with the arrival of a Sheriff's Office detective.

"The suspects weren't taken into custody, they weren't prosecuted, so how many more victims are out there?" now-retired El Mirage Assistant Police Chief Bill Louis asked.

Police also discovered dozens of lengthy investigations, including homicides, that appeared to have suspects or leads at the time. Yet, despite extensive interviews and detective work, they were never presented to prosecutors. Arrests were never made.

El Mirage police notified the Sheriff's Office. Though an official offered to have county detectives reinvestigate the cases, El Mirage police declined. Instead, El Mirage police spent months reviewing them.

Many victims had moved away. Some parents told police reopening investigations would bring back memories the victims had struggled to suppress.

One report, on the 2005 death of Rachel Rodriguez, stood out. Arturo Hernandez Jr. emerged as a suspect in his girlfriend's murder almost immediately after her body was found. Hernandez was not arrested until long afterward, however, leaving Rodriguez's three young sons fearful.

A Phoenix detective hired by El Mirage was assigned to the case more than two years after the murder. Hernandez was finally indicted on a charge of second-degree murder last spring. He is set to go to trial in August.

"It was solvable the day that it occurred. All they needed to do was connect the dots like we did years later," said Louis.

El Mirage officials hired the Sheriff's Office to help with its police work weeks after Rodriguez's murder, hoping to address problems with patrols, handling of evidence and shoddy investigations exposed by a city audit.

Arpaio's office provided commanders and about a dozen deputies, who were initially greeted as a stop-gap measure to help the city establish a more seasoned police force. Later, El Mirage signed a $3.6 million contract for patrol, supervision and investigative services, though some El Mirage officers continued to work in the city.

The Sheriff's Office provided 15 deputies, two detectives, three sergeants and administrative staff during the first year in El Mirage; six deputies, two detectives, five sergeants, two lieutenants and two captains in the second year.

El Mirage residents soon began to question the quality of Arpaio's police force. A group of parishioners at Santa Teresita Catholic Church became frustrated with hundreds of emergency calls placed to the Sheriff's Office that went unanswered or were dropped. They took the issue to the City Council in early 2007.

Sheriff's officials at the time blamed faulty equipment and staff shortages. While fielding complaints from El Mirage, sheriff's officials were also pushing the city to make the Sheriff's Office its full-time police force, a contract that could be worth millions of dollars annually.

Faced with an all-or-nothing ultimatum, El Mirage decided to re-form its own police agency in summer 2007. Arpaio's last act was to do an immigration sweep in a city where nearly half of the residents identify themselves as Hispanic.

That event, which sent nearly 100 deputies and posse members to El Mirage in October 2007, was likely the largest police presence Arpaio ever provided the city.

The agency's goal in helping El Mirage with its police force was to secure a long-term contract to patrol the city.

"That was, I think, our hope in going over there, to have El Mirage as a contract city," said Lisa Allen, a sheriff's spokeswoman. "It never came to fruition."

After the Sheriff's Office pulled out of El Mirage, former City Manager B.J. Cornwall wrote a letter to the Sheriff's Office thanking the agency for allowing El Mirage to rebuild its police force "into a professional organization."

When Mike Frazier took over as El Mirage police chief in October 2007, he contacted the Sheriff's Office with a message on the quality of the cases its investigators had left behind.

"What I got was a bunch of crap," Deputy Chief Freeman recalled Frazier telling him at a 2007 meeting shortly after the Sheriff's Office left.

Freeman told investigators that poor supervision in the unit had allowed detectives to clear cases by exceptional means when there was still investigative work to be done. Another detective transferred out of the unit and took "50 or 60 cases home with him in a garage and they sat there for a year," Freeman said.

The sheriff's probe to determine who will be held responsible for the shoddy police work is ongoing.

The Sheriff's Office confirmed that detectives reactivated 432 sex-crimes cases from throughout the Valley after concerns were raised, making 19 arrests. Of the remainder, 115 were determined to be unfounded, 67 were classified as "cold cases" and 221 were "exceptionally" cleared without arrest.

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